In 2020, Chicago improv drilled down to an overdue reckoning. (Pictured: Charna Halpern of now-defunct iO) Credit: Saverio Truglia

One cannot truly write an obituary for Chicago improv, because improv, like a zombie, is inherently undead. And like most horror flicks, improv is filled with the exciting thrill of watching actors delight without the safety net of the script, combined with legitimately disturbing scares. But in improv, some scares aren’t fiction—they are the very real horrors of harassment and racism.

The Black Lives Matter movement served as a catalyst for a long-overdue reckoning for major institutions, exposing inexplicable negligence under the harsh interrogation lights of social media and outlets like the New York Times. These embarrassing self-inflicted wounds, coupled with the risky choice to operate staggeringly expensive multistage complexes, along with devastating financial losses from COVID-19, forced the iO Theater to close its doors permanently, and longtime Second City owner Andrew Alexander to place the business for sale. Unlike iO, Second City was lucky enough to be purchased, and only time will tell if the past will be prologue for a new future—or more of the same. 

Down but not out, the scrappy Annoyance Theatre is dark, but not yet officially closed. ComedySportz let go of its theater space, but was the first to agilely adapt to virtual shows and is dominating the online comedy landscape. 

The most painful closures were the smallest. The house-party atmosphere of the Crowd Theater provided a chill space where both fringe and mainstream performers could play together. Early whispers of new theaters forming post-vaccine ensure that the beating heart of improv will surely reanimate.